Predators Are the New Central Division Favourites

The Nashville Predators were recently given 6/1 odds at winning the National Hockey League’s new Central Division, which the league formed for the 2020-21 season slated to begin on Jan. 13. With several new divisional opponents from the southeastern United States to take on multiple times, the Predators are the proverbial fish out of water, joining a division made up largely of teams previously belonging to the Eastern Conference.

With that said, the 6/1 odds provided by BetOnline put Nashville fourth, behind the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, and defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Featuring a roster largely similar to last season’s squad, which underwhelmed in the qualifying round of the playoffs, this divisional re-alignment could be a benefit to the Predators. Away from the original Central Division, which featured perennial contenders like the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets, among others, this could, in fact, be exactly what the Predators needed.

New and old rivalries will abound in the new Central Division, and the Predators are well-equipped to handle both. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of how the Predators will win the division.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have experienced a resurgence in success on and off the ice over the past two seasons, but that has come mainly at the expense of luckless teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (remember when the Hurricanes beat them with a Zamboni driver in goal?). The Predators are no such team. The Hurricanes are primarily defensive-minded in nature, but the Predators are equally good defensively throughout their roster.

What the Predators have that the Hurricanes don’t is a group of forwards who can score at will when living up to their offensive potential. In a shortened season, it’s unlikely that Carolina’s group will sustain multiple streaks of offensive prowess. Nashville also has a goalie in Juuse Saros, who has proven himself as a starter, while the Hurricanes will no doubt continue to platoon Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.

Juuse Saros, Justin Williams
Juuse Saros gives the Predators the edge in goal against the Hurricanes. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Roman Josi and Viktor Arvidsson are a better one-two offensive punch than the Hurricanes have to offer. Plus, I doubt the Hurricanes blueline can keep up speed-wise or skill-wise with Nashville’s. The Predators should be able to win most of the matchups here.

Chicago Blackhawks

Familiar division foes, the Blackhawks only made the playoffs when COVID-19 led to the NHL expanding the playoffs to have more teams. With their top two defencemen aged 35 and 37, Nashville’s younger, speedy forwards should be able to skate circles around the Blackhawks’ blue line.

Once again, a clear edge in goal goes to Saros and the Predators, and in terms of scoring prowess, it’s asking a lot to get repeat offensive performances from Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach. Toews and Kane will score, yes, but they’re both 32 years old, and Nashville has a much stouter blueline defensively with Mattias Ekholm and Mark Borowiecki as a menacing shutdown duo.

The Predators have earned points in nine of the last 12 games against Chicago, and fans can anticipate them to sustain that points percentage through the upcoming shortened season. The clear advantage in this matchup goes to the Predators.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Sure, the Blue Jackets added Mikko Koivu and Max Domi, but similar to the Predators, their offence will revolve around their top defensive pairing. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are definitely a daunting duo, but not quite on the same level as Josi and Ryan Ellis. And with Borowiecki and Ekholm back on defence, Nashville could find an easy time shutting down Columbus’s scoring up front.

Ryan Johansen Nashville Predators
Ryan Johansen is one of a few ex-Blue Jackets who don’t need much motivation against their former team. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Another piece that fuels the fire in this potential rivalry is the number of players on each team who used to play for the opponent. Looking at Nashville’s roster, the top two centres stand out as having been pretty much dumped by Columbus, albeit under different circumstances. Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene both somehow have to prove themselves every game, even more so against the Blue Jackets, for whom they won’t need any rousing pregame speeches or motivational videos. As good as they both are, Predators fans should expect the effort level of both to go up a notch in the games against the Blue Jackets this season.

These matchups will likely be incredibly entertaining, but the Predators’ strength down the middle is what will lead them to more victories than losses. Johansen, Duchene, Colton Sissons and Brad Richardson are as solid a veteran group of centres as you can get. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo are a good duo in goal for Columbus, but there’s no doubt they’ll be under siege behind a leaky, inexperienced blueline.

Dallas Stars

After a big run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Stars are poised to repeat that performance this coming season. However, their scoring appears to be front-loaded on paper, with Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov forming a pretty good first line. After that, scoring gets very hit or miss, while the Predators have players who can score throughout their lineup as well as on their blueline.

A big reason the Stars went as deep into the playoffs as they did was the resurgence of Corey Perry as a goal scorer and a pest. Even without Perry, who is now a free agent, the Stars are an aging squad whose speed may not equal their toughness. This plays right into the hands of the Predators, who are a team built on speed but also have enough toughness to handle a Perry-less Stars’ team.

Corey Perry Dallas Stars
Corey Perry’s departure from Dallas gives Nashville an edge up front. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Anton Khudobin captured the hearts of NHL fans with his iconic “We’re not going home!” in the playoffs, but recapturing the magic for the 34-year-old won’t be easy. Saros has the motivation of playing in a contract year, and even the older Pekka Rinne should be able to outduel Khudobin should it come down to goaltending. At the very least, this should be an even split for the Predators, especially with improved special teams units against Dallas’s unimpressive special teams.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings finished dead last by a landslide last season, and it was not even close. One season won’t turn around the abysmal results the Red Wings got a year ago. In two matchups, the Predators scored nine times, an offensive output which could easily be matched or even surpassed against a mostly anonymous Red Wings’ blueline and two aged yet still unproven goaltenders in Thomas Greiss and Jonathan Bernier. This should be a slam-dunk season series for the Predators, and there isn’t much more to add.

Florida Panthers

Another southern-based team with most of the scoring stacked atop the first line, the Panthers share many similarities on paper to the Dallas Stars. Solid goaltending, but a weak blueline defensively could crumble in the face of the Predators’ potential firepower. Aaron Ekblad is a stud, to be sure, but aside from him and the veteran offensive force that is Keith Yandle, it should be another defensive corps that Nashville’s speedy forwards are able to terrorize each and every matchup.

The Panthers did not take a lot of penalties a year ago, but their penalty kill was well below average. With a much-improved power play – on paper – the Predators should be able to capitalize on having the superior special teams play. Aleksander Barkov is one of the best two-way forwards in the game, but the Predators have three of the best two-way defencemen in the game in Josi, Ellis and Ekholm. Last I checked, three is better than one.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Historically, the Predators have had the Lightning’s number; over the past three seasons, the Predators have earned at least a point in every matchup, winning four of the six games. Averaging over three goals a game over the six games, the Predators are one of the few teams in the league who have had Tampa Bay’s number over the past few seasons, as the Lightning have consistently been near the top of the league standings.

Todd Richards
Todd Richards moving from Tampa Bay to Nashville could be a huge X-factor for the Predators in this season’s series. (THW Archives)

Maybe the biggest loss the Lightning took in the off-season was the departure of assistant coach Todd Richards, who quickly found a new home as an assistant with Nashville. Richards was a huge part of why the Lightning were so successful on special teams and will be a reason the Predators improve that aspect of their game in 2021. It’s hard to imagine the Lightning lining up a penalty kill that matches up with Nashville’s powerplay, and ditto for powerplay to Nashville’s penalty kill.

With Steven Stamkos potentially sidelined for the start of the season, and rumours of an injury to Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning could be hurting in the scoring department, which could serve to tip the ice in Nashville’s favour enough at the start of the season to give the Predators the edge in the season series. That might be schedule-based, but Richards having the inside info on the Lightning’s lineup from top to bottom gives Nashville the edge.

With a new head coach in John Hynes, and several players looking for bounce-back seasons, fresh opponents could potentially be exactly the kind of change the Predators need to re-discover their successes of past seasons. The odds may not be extremely in Nashville’s favour, but on paper, they could match up very well with every other team in the division and even come away with a division title in 2021.

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